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Gripped by the Cobblers: Curle, pressure, strategy or otherwise and an Oxford dross loss

Tom Reed asks if a Director of Football is the way forward

The net had barely stopped rippling after Oxford United’s Dan Agyei had sent a cute left-footed curler into the Town net before Curle Out was being tapped in to Northampton computers.

There was only one team who had scored fewer than United and the Cobblers in League 1 before the match but Oxford’s 4-0 rout over relegation rivals Northampton has left the shoe town club and their boss Keith Curle, exposed and under pressure.

“But we always beat Oxford” said the Northampton fans, not any more lads, not any more.

The “Curle Out” cries weren’t those of an anti-personality cult aimed at disposing the mysterious Keith of a job, because the Cobblers boss is pretty well liked as a person. This is more the reasoned, downtrodden expressions of fans that can see a decent football pitch from a cabbage patch and the wood from the trees.

At present the positives of Curle’s current Town tenure aren’t particularly obvious bar him being apparently a nice fellow and instilling discipline off the pitch, but this is a League 1 football club not a 1950’s Butlins. The glory of a somewhat fortunate promotion can be undone in six-months and has been before at Sixfields.

Curle is notoriously not one for statistics particularly, which is just as well because just about the only stat in his favour, the league table is beginning to look ugly, with Town a point above the League 1 drop zone and with injuries mounting. The rest of the stats are what the Scots would call minging. Joint worse goal difference in League 1, 2nd worst pass completion success % in League 1, lowest short pass % in League 1, not a single shot registered on target at the Kassam in a very obvious relegation six-pointer.

In Keith Curle’s last 30 games, there’s been 16 losses, 11 wins and 3 draws, the L word looming large.

Keith Curle’s side look stuck between a rock and a hard place, barracked for the robotic Curleball which has rightfully critiqued for its unattractive excesses, but that picks up the odd point and a more expansive passing style that the players simply look ill at ease with. The backdrop is Curle’s sideline barks and the feeling that perhaps he cares too much. “Totally mechanised teams are useless because they get lost when they lose their script” said the great Marcelo Bielsa.

The question of whom to replace Curle with should he get the Cobblers boot is also prescient with sacking fatigue a significant factor at a club that has had more churn than the Anchor butter factory. Footballing, in a few short years has moved on from the days of dispensing with a manager and then crossing the bridge of what comes next and that is part of Northampton’s problem and a potential lack of joined up thinking.

There was no solid answer from the club’s Chief Exec James Whiting on the club owners’ plans for the next 5 to 10 years in terms of its football operations in a recent Q&A bar some general points about “backing the managers” in terms of budget and supporting the “development and growth on and off the pitch”. The devil is in the detail and there appears to be precious little at the moment as to where Northampton Town sees itself post-covid.

When Kelvin Thomas and David Bower came in it was to descriptions as “football men” and to their credit they have appeared to fit that old fashioned bill in giving their man a budget and keeping clear of the football side of things by and large. But then, bar some short-term successes who is steering the ship football wise between failed managers who are off into the night and football people understandably tentative to put their hands on the rudder?

Sack Curle and the not only do you lose the man that has almost entirely been handed the keys to the Cobblers football operations, but also likely his key allies in coaching and scouting, leaving a potential vacuum in football strategy at the top of the club.

That’s exactly why progressive clubs have been quietly installing technical directors to minimise the chaos caused when a manager leaves, as they inevitably always do and to mould a football strategy that is both successful and appealing to those ever-important football consumers otherwise known as supporters.

In many ways, the creation of a technical director or sporting director, call it what you want, is more important than the tempting choice of another failed manager off the merry-go-round.

Someone who is able sit in what former FA Technical Director Dan Ashworth calls “the middle of the wheel” and looking after the “medium to long term interests of the football club, it’s not about short-term ‘get a result against Liverpool tomorrow’” as he told the Coaching Guru website.

Keith Curle’s recently talked that his “short-term aim is to win the next game.” and the crux of what he and Ashworth are describing appear to be at odds. Ashworth and other leading technical directors such as Norwich City’s coveted Stuart Webber have talked up the continuity between the academy system and the first team but there are doubts about whether you would want Curle’s turgid style played by the Cobblers successful youth system.

Curle may point to a future evolution of playing style but a Chronicle and Echo headline of July 2020 read that “Curle will not change his playing style in League One”. The contradictions are beginning to mount, the question marks over whether Curle is the man to lead the club forwards remain.

In the background sits Jon Brady, former Brackley manager and current Cobblers under-18 boss, a font of knowledge of the Cobblers youth system. He was the mastermind behind the FA Cup youth exploits v Arsenal where the Town youth matched the Gunners and kept the ball on the park, something first team fans haven’t seen for a while.

Brady seems an obvious choice for the role of Technical Director, but there will be other candidates with the FA running a dedicated qualification for the role.

Ex-player David Buchanan’s wife, somewhat tongue in cheek, posted a mock-up of David and former Cobblers striker Marc Richards on the sidelines and the pair have been loosely mooted as potential future managers. This obviously comes with a heavy case of claret tinted spectacles but if for instance Brady was installed as Technical Director and Richards and Buchanan as head coach/assistant coach you could see the logic and begin to trust a little in the processes at the football club.

Preference would always be for a progressive head coach with experience but some of the more reasonable choices such as Paul Tisdale and Keith Hill have been snapped up by the Rovers, Bristol and Tranmere. The Cowley Brothers, sit, as hot property waiting for their next job but you wonder whether their ambitions would fit with Northampton’s and whether they would be off at the first opportunity?

Elsewhere, former Hotel End favourite Kevin Wilkin continues to do an excellent job at Brackley Town and will continue to knock on the door of a job that he would relish and be happy and familiar in the Northants football landscape.

Matty Taylor, the intelligent Oxford based former Cobbler might be an interesting left-field choice having recently completed the FA level 5 UEFA Pro qualification if Town could prize him away from a job coaching with the Spurs youth setup.

Whatever comes next, Cobblers are at a crossroads at trying to achieve some of the potential that fans have talked about for generations but becomes more tenuous which each passing day and each grey hair.

Some might say that discussing successors for Curle’s role in distasteful while he is in situ but Curle himself has said the “game has gone soft” and will understand the ramifications of the club’s perilous league position and supporter unease on a game they have loyally paid to watch in a global pandemic.

Ultimately, it should never be out of reach to hope for a team that is comfortable on the ball, that plays with a little freedom, expression and flair. and to try and engage more of the County’s huge catchment area.

It will be the fans that will be there, way after Curle and members of the local media have moved on to other jobs, and it is the utterly loyal, beleaguered fans that have to watch the football which reached a nadir of dross under the lights at Oxford.

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